Target, US and Australia, unrelated twins

If Target Corp had a twin in a parallel universe, that retailer might carry the same name, logo and slogan and operate on the opposite side of the alternative Earth. Say, Australia.

As it turns out, Target's Down Under doppelganger is quite real. Target Australia not only sports the same red and white bull's-eye logo but also a motto that reads, "Get More. Pay Less".

Sound familiar?

Target officials in Minneapolis, though, want to make something abundantly clear: The two retailers are completely different companies.

"Target Corp has no affiliation with Target Australia," said company spokesman Eric Hausman.

"There is no relationship between our companies."

And lest you think that some opportunistic Aussie opened a cheesy knockoff store in the remote outback, Target Australia operates 300 stores in major cities and suburbs across the island nation. Last year, the retail chain generated $A3.7 billion in revenue, according to financial documents from corporate parent Wesfarmers.

The similarities are so strong between the Targets that people sometimes confuse the two, a problem that might get worse as US Target further expands across the globe. Earlier this year, Target opened its first stores in Canada, the first time the company has ventured beyond its American borders.

A spokeswoman for Wesfarmers did not return phone calls seeking comment. Founded in 1919 as a farmers' co-operative, Wesfarmers has grown into one of Australia's largest companies with more than $A58 billion in revenue in 2012. The company owns everything from supermarkets and department stores to makers of fertiliser and industrial equipment.

So, this naturally brings up the question of how two retailers from opposite sides of the world ended up with the same identity.

In general, trademarks are local matters, meaning a company can protect its trademark only on a country-by-country basis. In other words, although a brand like Apple obviously owns its name in the United States, it must file a separate trademark claim in each country where it does business. That, of course, inevitably leads to conflict if another company already has rights to the same name in that country.

"In a global economy, these are very arcane laws," said Maria Savio, a lawyer with intellectual property law firm Gottlieb, Rackman & Reisman in New York.

For example, Apple could not sell Beatles music on iTunes for a long time because of opposition from the British firm, also named Apple, that controlled the rights to the songs and was not too happy about the identical names.

Such disputes are usually resolved with one company agreeing to license the name from the other. Although the two Targets don't (yet) directly compete with each other, experts say the companies must have reached some kind of deal given the strong similarity in their trademarks.

Otherwise, "it would seem like a strange coincidence they came up with the same name and logo," said Erik Pelton, who owns a boutique law firm in Virginia that specialises in trademark protection.

In truth, the similar trademarks were neither fully the result of a coincidence nor a formal business deal.

Born out of Dayton Hudson Corp, Target (US) opened its first store in Roseville, Minnesota, in 1962. Four years later, the discount retailer filed its first trademark claim and then another claim in 1967 that covered its bull's-eye logo, according to documents with the US Patent and Trademark Office. A year later, Target Australia, then known as Lindsay's Target Pty Ltd, adopted the Target name.

Hausman said Target never licensed anything to the retailer. Instead, the founders of each company "had a conversation" at that time, he said, without specifying what was actually said.

In addition to Target, Wesfarmers also operates a retail chain called Kmart with a similar logo to the Kmart owned by Sears Holdings Corp in the United States.

Savio said it would not be surprising if the two Targets had some sort of informal, handshake agreement. Fifty years ago, retail was primarily a local business and there were very few, if any, truly global brands. The idea that Target US and Target Australia would somehow cross paths seemed remote at best.

"They probably decided to go their own separate ways," Savio said.

But today, the growing prominence of the internet has virtually eliminated geographic boundaries. Consumers can access Target Australia's website just as easily as they can surf Target's web page. And faced with sluggish sales at its nearly 1,800 US stores, Target is opening 180 stores in Canada this year with more countries likely to come.

Target Australia, for its part, says it's "only getting started," according to its advertising.

The company seems to be making the most of its resemblance to Target US. The retailer has launched several exclusive design collections, a favourite strategy of American Target, and even used the word "Tarzhay" in one of its website videos.

Target officials in Minneapolis deflected questions about whether the company will one day enter Australia, saying such a decision is many years away. But it's not too hard to imagine Target would want to do so. Like Canada, Australia is a wealthy, English-speaking country whose 22.3 million people offer an attractive market for Target's global ambitions.

But Target could not legally enter the country without changing its name or buying the Australian retailer, Pelton said. Same goes for Target Australia if it wanted to expand into the United States.

"Each company would be out of luck," Pelton said.

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    AUDEUR=X
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